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EDITORIAL: Yes, Mr. Grothman, people do need free lawyers

Logic doesn’t often prevail in the politics versus social services debate.

That’s because the poor don’t vote in the same numbers as the middle class and affluent, so adopting a superficial, sharp-sounding, bumper-sticker-length slogan is good, but unsavory, politics. It’s easier to pick a side, adopt a catchphrase and leave the critical thinking to those who aren’t limited by 30-second attention spans.

So, in that sense, state Sen. Glenn Grothman deserves no more ridicule than a typical politician for his refusal to accept the state has a financial responsibility to provide free civil legal services to the poor. The bar, after all, is set pretty low.

It’s easy for Grothman to defend his position because the state budget, which removed all $5 million for such services, backs him up.

Still, his insistence that “nobody needs free lawyers” places him at the shallow end of a debate better left to those intellectually equipped to venture into the deep waters of social understanding.

Of course people need free lawyers, particularly when the recession has crushed job opportunities along with bank accounts. Those are the people who stare down foreclosures, demanding landlords, unemployment and child-custody disputes.

Those are social ills no less significant than the medical needs of the uninsured or the lack of high-quality education in the poorest neighborhoods.

Yet Grothman himself is just a sound bite in the greater argument. Those who govern Wisconsin’s finances insist through their actions that free legal services are a low priority for a state short on money.

They do so even though their neighbor solved the problem. Minnesota is paying $11.2 million for free legal services, while attorneys in the state cover a $25 annual assessment.

Wisconsin attorneys pay $50 yearly to fuel organizations that offer the services, and Grothman spoke the truth when he said lawyers shouldn’t pay a penny. Attorneys owe extra for free legal services no more than doctors do for Medicaid.

Pure logic, however, rarely guides decisions about social aid, though it should spare Wisconsin lawyers from paying more to cover the state’s irresponsibility.

Rather than fight the Legislature’s abandonment of the poor, Tom Cannon wants to surrender. The executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee wants to increase the attorney assessment to a whopping $200.

It’s proof that poor governance prompts irrational responses. It’s evidence that common sense is easy prey for more than one predator.


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